Grace Welsby & Buffy
Titles: Surgical waiting-room concierge; COVID-19 screening dog, Doctors Hospital of Sarasota
Location: Sarasota, Florida
Dogs hold a place in health care beyond the emotional support they provide. Specially trained dogs have detected conditions like cancer in previously undiagnosed patients. Seizure-detection dogs respond to looming episodes in people with epilepsy, and diabetes-alert dogs spot signs of dangerously high or low blood sugar. Now, a select group of canines have been trained to sniff out COVID-19.
Doctors Hospital Sarasota, which had the first patient hospitalized for COVID-19 in Florida, has been screening visitors since early March 2020. Looking to complement the existing screening process, the hospital teamed up with dog trainers from Southeastern Guide Dogs, who taught Buffy, a yellow Labrador retriever, to detect COVID-19 by scent.
The hospital provided saliva samples from COVID-19-positive patients, which were then inactivated so they couldn’t cause disease, and used them to train Buffy, who developed 95% accuracy in detecting the infection. Grace Welsby, 21, has been handling Buffy as she screens hospital visitors three days a week.
As told to Lisa Esposito, as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What’s it like working with a dog who can sniff out COVID-19?
I started off as a screener here at the hospital in November. I was taking temperatures and going through the answers of what people think they should say to go up there and see their family members. Working with Buffy gives us a little more reassurance.
I screen both patients and visitors — anyone who comes into the hospital. Buffy only screens visitors. When I work with Buffy, we have a system. After the visitor agrees, there’s a paw-print pattern that we’ve placed on the floor so the people know where to stand. All I have to say to Buffy is “search” and she starts her job. I like to take Buffy through the process a couple times just to make sure. If she lays down at the person’s feet and she doesn’t get up, then I would know that person has COVID.
At that point, we launch ‘Code Buffy.’ We call security and let them know that Buffy detected COVID. So the security guard pretty much escorts the person into a private room and they get swabbed. The whole process takes about an hour. And then once we get that test result, we go from there.
I always let the visitors know before they get screened. We give them a pamphlet with all the instructions of what Buffy will do when she’s screening and if she does detect COVID.
I’ve only had Buffy detect one person with COVID. The visitor had symptoms so it wasn’t anything she was completely shocked about. It was an easy process from there.
The fact that Buffy is able to detect COVID has been really helpful for the hospital in a way that goes beyond the temperature-taking. It keeps people safe, helps prevent the spread of COVID — and it just puts a smile on everybody’s faces.
Having Buffy there helps cut some of the tension. You can see a big difference in how people walk into the hospital — when they see Buffy they’re a lot happier. People want to be screened by Buffy, even people who are vaccinated, because it’s so cute and so rare.
I believe right now Buffy is the only COVID-sniffing dog that works in a hospital in the U.S. So she’s famous, but a lot of people don’t even know that when they come in. They’re just excited to see a friendly dog wagging her tail, excited to do her job.
There are some people who just would not rather have her sniff. That’s OK, too. They have the option to be sniffed or not by Buffy. We don’t have to argue with a lot of people. It’s their choice.
I know walking into the hospital as an employee can be stressful because you don’t know what your day is going to be like, especially for nurses and doctors. Buffy is not only therapeutic for the visitors and patients that come in, she’s therapeutic for everybody, including the employees.
Seeing Buffy there kind of takes your mind off everything and puts you in a good place. She does a lot more than just screen people, you know. She’s also a hugger — she gives the best hugs and kisses. She’s a very happy dog.
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COVID-19-Detecting Dog Screens — and Delights — Hospital Visitors originally appeared on usnews.com